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Burma adjourns talks on new civilian constitution

THE military junta in Burma yesterday called an abrupt halt to a constitutional convention in the capital, Rangoon, two days after it opened, and sent some 700 delegates home until 1 February. Only two one-hour sessions had been held before the abrupt adjournment.

The convention chairman, Major-General Myo Nyunt, said the pause was to give delegates time to study proposals for a new constitution, but some observers suggested the motive might have been to distract attention from a protest by Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader under house arrest since July 1989. She has refused outside offers of food, timing what has now become a hunger strike to coincide with the beginning of the convention.

The gathering in Rangoon is being depicted by the junta - the State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc) - as the first step towards the possible restoration of civilian rule. The convention has received extensive publicity within Burma. Restrictions on visits by foreign journalists have been eased as the Slorc attempts to improve its image.

Diplomats and exiled opposition figures believe, however, that the main purpose is to legitimise continued military rule. The European Community refused to send observers. Gen Myo Nyunt told the opening session on Saturday: 'To put it frankly, the maintenance of national stability without the participation of the tatmadaw (military) is extremely risky and dangerous.'

The National League for Democracy (NLD) won the May 1990 elections by a landslide, despite the confinement of Ms Suu Kyi. The Slorc ignored the result, however, imprisoning hundreds of party members and forcing many NLD leaders to leave the country. Although the junta pays little heed to Western opinion - the awarding of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize to Ms Suu Kyi made no difference to its treatment of her - pressure from South-east Asian neighbours and Japan appears to have persuaded the military to make cosmetic changes. Some political prisoners were released, and Ms Suu Kyi's British husband, Michael Aris, was allowed to visit her last May for the first time in more than two years.

Last month Mr Aris, an Oxford don, said his wife had decided to refuse all outside help and had asked him not to visit her, fearing this might weaken her resolve in a battle of wills with the Slorc. The adjournment of the convention, which surprised delegates, will enable the military to usher foreign journalists out of Burma just when the confrontation with Ms Suu Kyi may be coming to a head.